Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2018

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Las Vegas loses its ‘first lady’

An ailing Toni Clark struggled to stay awake at 2 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2001, to watch the televised implosion of the Augusta Tower of the Desert Inn with her longtime companion and future husband Larry Finuf.

The woman many had come to know as "The First Lady of Las Vegas" watched the Strip resort that was built by her late husband, Wilbur Clark, reduced to rubble to make way for Wynn Las Vegas.

"Toni accepted it, saying that things move on and life changes," said Finuf, who operated a men's apparel shop with Toni at the Desert Inn from 1978 to 1989. Clark said the property had changed hands and its look so many times over the previous 35 years, it was not the same place she and Wilbur had showcased to the world.

Indeed the entire town had grown far beyond the Las Vegas of Toni Clark's heyday.

Toni Clark-Finuf, a pioneer proponent of local high fashion and a civic leader who spent seven decades sponsoring and promoting cultural arts in Las Vegas, died Wednesday at Nathan Adelson Hospice on Buffalo Drive following a lengthy illness. She was 91.

Clark was diagnosed seven years ago with progressive super nuclear palsy, a rare neurological disease that also killed actor Dudley Moore.

Services for the Las Vegas resident of 62 years will be 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip. Visitation will be 2 to 6 p.m. Monday at Palm Mortuary on Main Street. A vigil will follow at 6 p.m.

"When the history books are finally written about the early days of modern Las Vegas, there will be a special place for Toni Clark because she represented all that was good and decent about our city and kept the bar high for those who followed," said Sun Publisher Barbara Greenspun, a close friend of 60 years.

"Wilbur was Mr. Las Vegas, Toni was Mrs. Las Vegas. She carried herself in her role as ambassador in those early days with a grace and dignity that was rare then and even rarer now."

Late Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun was a partner and director of publicity for the 1950 opening of the Desert Inn, before purchasing the Las Vegas Free Press and changing its name to the Las Vegas Sun.

In an April 7, 1974, "Where I Stand" column, Hank Greenspun wrote that Wilbur and Toni Clark "helped change the Las Vegas image of a boisterous, brawling sinful newcomer ... to a fine young city with a great future."

The diminutive Clark, known for wearing fine Paris designs and stylish mink jackets, was named among the 10 Best Dressed Women in America several times in the 1950s by various high-fashion organizations.

In January 2000 Clark, a longtime philanthropist and devotee of the arts, was named Nevada Ballet Theatre's Woman of the Year at the Black and White Ball, the highlight event of the social season. Gov. Kenny Guinn presented the honor.

Forty years earlier the Clarks' soirees at their opulent home on the 9th hole of the Desert Inn golf course were the premier social events in town.

When Wilbur Clark developed a subdivision near Maryland Parkway and Tropicana Avenue, he named Toni Avenue just off Wilbur Street for his wife. She named all of the other streets in the development, including Lulu Avenue for Wilbur's mother, Finuf said.

The Clarks traveled the world as goodwill ambassadors, extolling the virtues of Las Vegas to presidents, kings and Pope Pius XII.

Wilbur Clark died of a heart attack on Aug. 27, 1965, at age 56.

Toni went on for many years fairly unnoticed outside society circles, quietly doing philanthropic work as the town she nurtured in its infancy grew into the metropolis her late husband had envisioned.

In the past several years Toni Clark at times enjoyed iconic status, attending events such as the closing of the Desert Inn showroom in 2000 and annual Las Vegas old-timers' dinners at the Stardust.

"She had the charm and grace that attracted people," Finuf said of Clark's magnetic personality. "She was just a sweet person."

At those parties celebrities and the common folk alike passed her table to get a glimpse of Clark, ask for her autograph, pose for photos with her or thank her for her family's many contributions to the community.

The Clarks' philanthropic endeavors included a donation of land to the Catholic Church where the Guardian Angel Cathedral was built.

In June 1997 Toni Clark was on hand when a stretch of the Desert Inn Super Arterial from Channel 8 Drive to Rancho Drive was renamed the Wilbur Clark D.I. Road. Then-Gov. Bob Miller officiated the ceremony.

"(Wilbur's) faith in this little desert town never wavered," Toni said after the ceremony. "The newer generations of Las Vegans don't know him - but they will now. It was a long time coming, but it's wonderful."

Toni Clark was born April 4, 1915, in Seattle . She met Wilbur in San Diego when he was on the upswing of building his Horatio Alger-type legend after traversing the country, working his way up from penniless diner dishwasher to millionaire restaurateur.

The couple married in 1944, the year they moved to Las Vegas, and he bought El Rancho Vegas. Wilbur sold it in 1946 for about $1 million and spent the next four years building the Desert Inn for $4.5 million. (By contrast, the 2,700-room Wynn Las Vegas carried a $2.7 billion price tag.)

Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, then the largest hotel in Las Vegas with 300 rooms and a three-story tower, opened on April 24, 1950, the fifth resort on a two-lane highway that would become the Las Vegas Strip.

After Clark's death, the Desert Inn's succession of owners included the colorful Moe Dalitz and billionaires Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian.

Las Vegas mainstays Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole headlined the Desert Inn's 530-seat Crystal Showroom. The resort's golf course was home to major men's pro tournaments in the 1950s and '60s.

Together, the Clarks marketed Las Vegas as a place of great hospitality, ushering in the town's golden age and establishing the city as an international gaming destination long before there was a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

In the early 1950s Toni Clark was among a small group who got high-fashion designs from Paris and New York stocked in the dress shops of Las Vegas. When the Fashion Foundation of America named her to its 10 Best Dressed Women in America list in 1958, the organization said she wore clothes that garnered "gasps of delight from the fun-loving celebrities who frequent the famous Inn."

Clark and Finuf married in 2001, culminating a 27-year friendship.

A party was held for Clark on April 4, 2005, to celebrate her milestone 90th birthday. Among those attending were Barbara Greenspun, singer Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire Sisters, former Desert Inn President Burton Cohen and former Sen. Richard Bryan.

In addition to her husband, Clark is survived by two nieces, Shirley Walker of El Cajon, Calif., and Sharon Hoffer of San Diego; and one nephew, Harold Clark of Paducah, Ky.